Bad dreams can feel so remarkably… bad. And if they recur over and over, well you can start to dread sleep.
I’ve found the best way to handle bad dreams, recurrent dreams, or good dreams, for that matter, is to dive right into them. One of my favorite analysis methods was pioneered by Swiss Psychologist Carl Jung and made more accessible and contemporary by one of my favorite teachers, author Martha Beck. When you look at dreams in this way, they usually vanish, but, more importantly, they always reward you with increased happiness in your waking life.
Sound too good to be true? Try the following analysis method with one of your dreams.
- Read the following long, detailed description with a full example. Or…
- Start right off with the worksheet.
The analysis looks involved when I write it all out for you here, but with practice it flows, feels fun, and is deeply adventurous.
If you get stuck, contact me to book a dream analysis phone call. It is SO much easier and more fun and rewarding with experienced company.
Enjoy, and let me know how it goes!
PS — My other favorite way to play with dreams is using Jung’s own “transcendent function” as I demonstrated here. It’s much less prescribed: some people love that, and some people prefer this step-by-stepway. Both are helpful and powerful.
Dream Analysis Worksheet
Click here for a link to a google doc .jpg you can print.
Dream Analysis Method (4 steps… with an example)
Step 1: Write down your dream.
Short dreams actually work best, so don’t worry if all you have is a “fragment.” You don’t need a full story.
Example: I am riding a yellow bear. It is kind of adventurous, but then for some reason I slit the bear’s throat. I instantly feel horrible and watch it bleeding with horrible sadness and regret. I wish I hadn’t done that. I don’t know why I did and wish I could take it back and resume riding the bear.
Note: It’s best to write in present tense not in past tense. (And yes, this example is intentionally weird and a little deviant just so you don’t feel bad if your own dreams are… odd. In truth, we all have EXTREMELY strange dreams, much stranger than I want to write in this post. So don’t feel bad if you do. Seriously.)
Step 2: Make a list of the “elements” (person, place, thing, and activity) in the dream.
Step 3: Analyze each element, as follows:
a) Pretend you ARE each element.
Remember when you were a kid, playing, and your brother would say to you, “You be the antelope, and I’ll be the wolf.” And then he’d try to chase you down and rip off your limbs? Wait, maybe that was just in my family (!), but you remember playing make-believe. So do that now.
This is a form of what’s called “active imagination.” I want you to BE the thing in your dream for a good reason: because that thing actually is representing a part of you. So don’t look on like an observer and describe what your regular, conscious self thinks about that thing. BE that thing. Because you are 🙂
Don’t worry if it’s a bad thing. We all have every bad thing in us as well as every good thing. But their appearance in our dreams always will help the development of our true, essential self. And by the way, that essential self, deep inside, IS good. I promise.
b) Speaking AS the element, describe yourself with three descriptors.
Say to yourself “I am [insert an element here ]. I am [description #1, description #2, and description #3].” There are no right or wrong answers here, just describe yourself quickly with whatever random thing comes to mind.
I am “riding.” (Pretending to be an action or an adjective is even more abstract than pretending to be something like a bear, but you can do this hard thing!) I am an athletic activity. I am a vigorous activity. I am fun.
I am “yellow.” I am cheerful, bright, sunny.
I am the bear. I am huge, strong, wild.
I am “slitting.” I am deadly, quick, sly.
I am the throat. I am the part of the body that swallows food and talks. I am vulnerable to attack. I attach the head to the body.
If your description brings up another element, add it to your list.
I am food. I am nourishing, tasty, essential for life.
I am the head. I am heavy, on top, and smart.
I am “bleeding” or “blood.” (You can convert from verb to noun, like this, if it feels right to you.) I am vital to life. I’m red. I’m liquid.
c) Speaking AS the element, state your purpose.
I am “riding.” My purpose is to let a person use the superior strength and speed of a larger thing in order to get somewhere more easily.
I am “yellow.” My purpose is to be bright. (Sometimes your answers repeat from the previous step. That’s ok.)
I am the bear. My purpose is to live my wild life.
I am “slitting.” My purpose is to kill quickly and quietly.
I am the throat. My purpose is to ingest food and communicate with sounds.
I am food. My purpose is to give the being energy to live.
I am the head. My purpose is to do the thinking.
I am “bleeding” or “blood.” My purpose is to carry nourishment throughout the body.
d) Speaking AS the element, give us your helpful message for the dreamer.
Remember Carl Jung’s main point: each dream element is a metaphor that your unconscious mind has created in order to help you. It’s a part of you. And it’s showing up for a reason — a reason that’s always beneficial for you. Always.
I am “riding,” and I am here to help Betsy by reminding her that she is not propelling herself through life all on her, under her own power.
I am “yellow.” My message for Betsy is that there is sunshine in the most unlikely places. Like even underneath you, carrying you forward.
I am the bear. I showed up here to tell Betsy that my seemingly dangerous, wildness is fun and useful — a wild ride!
I am “slitting.” My message for Betsy is that when you have to kill something, do it in a way that they don’t see coming and that doesn’t hurt them. It’s safer and more effective for you, and more humane to them.
I am the throat. I am here to help Betsy by showing her what she’s doing. She’s cutting open the wild thing right where it’s most easily killed — severing it’s head from it’s body. [Don’t judge me, dear reader. I am actually engaging in this process as we go, and I will say it’s a vulnerable feeling, baring my psyche like this.]
I am food. I’m here to help by pointing out that… [I don’t know I’m getting nothing here. Sometimes that happens and you can just skip it as long as you’re not skipping too many things.]
I am the head. My message to Betsy is that the wild thing doesn’t really die that easily. [Sometimes the message makes no sense. Sometimes it doesn’t seem to go with whatever theme you have seen developing. That’s okay.]
I am bleeding/blood. I’m here to help Betsy by clotting. I mean, my message to her is: remember that blood clots.
Here I better do a quick analysis of “clotting” since it’s a new element. I am clotting. I’m a thickening of blood, a natural healthy self-preserving process. My purpose is to stop a living being from dying of blood loss. My message to Betsy is that her wild self’s natural processes will save it even from her! Whoa.
e) Now stop being the elements and just be yourself, the dreamer. Look at each element and what you’ve written about it. What could it be symbolizing in your life? Try asking yourself, “what in my life feels the way this feels?” “What part of me is this a metaphor for?” Or fill in the sentence: “oh… this is like ___.” After you noodle around ideas, underline your answer for easy reference.
Important: Carl Jung said that each symbol in the dream represents a part of the dreamer.
–>Very occasionally, a thing in the dream is really representing itself. So, for example. a dream of your Mom could be about her. But more likely it’s about a part of you that is like your Mom. Maybe it’s your caring side. Or your sarcastic side. Or the part of you that is creative (like how mothers create new life). It probably symbolizes whatever trait you associate with your mother on the day you are analyzing the dream. Remember, too, that symbols can change over time. <–
Example: (I know this is getting long. Skip around, obviously! I just want you have to have one complete example to refer to.)
“Riding” seems to me to be symbolic of “how I get through life.”
“Yellow” in this case sounds like optimism.
The bear is like my own wild nature
“Slitting” is.. just that. (Sometimes you do all the analysis but the word the dream gave you is PERFECT.)
Food is like nourishment — not just physical but spiritual, intellectual, emotional. (Note: I skipped forward and did this element before I finished the “throat” analysis below because I needed this information to do that analysis.)
The head is the logical-thinking kind of mind. (Ditto from note above.)
The throat seems to be a metaphor for getting nourishment and communicating. The dream seems to be saying that the same part of my wild nature that does those things connects my wild nature’s logical, thinking mind to its more “bodily” part. And that this part is especially vulnerable. And that I’m slicing it open. Oh man. Here’s where you ask yourself: “Based on the description I just wrote, what part of my life could this symbolize for me?” I’d have to say… information (specifically, the truth) and love.
The bleeding/blood is losing the life force that distributes the nourishment and keeps my wild nature alive, but interestingly, it also can clot. I have to ask myself, “what feels like the life blood of my wild nature — distributing nourishment throughout it and keeping it alive?” I’m not sure, so I go back and re-read the descriptors I wrote for blood: vital to life, red, liquid. This seems to be an important element in the dream, so I am going to do a quick analysis of “red” and “liquid” since I didn’t pull those out separately before.
I’m the color “red.” I’m powerful, primary/elemental, the color of fire. My purpose is to attract attention and be visible and represent danger. (My thinking is that’s why animals have red markings as predator deterrents; why emergency vehicles are red; etc. Please remember my interpretation of red might be different tomorrow. And yours definitely will be different. We could say cheerful and life-like. It all depends on what comes up for you the day you do this.) I’m here to help Betsy by making her consider those things in this list because she might normally think they are not very polite, but she needs to consider and value them. [Sheesh. I guess “red” seems to me to be like power.]
I’m “liquid.” I’m flowing, not solid, not gas, wet. My purpose is to be a state in which a material can flow or be pumped from one place to another easily. My message to Betsy is that I am a resilient material that can get to (and get into) places easily. [Liquid feels like a metaphor for the ability of something to flow where ever it wants to go.]
Now, if I combine that information with what I had before, then “blood” — the life force of my wild nature — would seem to represent: easily flowing power that handily and naturally gets where it needs to go to preserve my wild nature’s life. Wow.
Clotting: Now, when an element references ANOTHER element, you can combine them. For example, if I combine things I wrote above, then “clotting” would be “a thickening” of my wild nature’s “easily flowing power ” wherein that power turns itself into a plug to stop itself from draining out so much as to kill my wild nature. So the the question is: what does that seem to me to symbolize? Okay this is getting intense and cosmic. So… it’s when my normally free-flowing wild-ish (i.e., free and not necessarily civilized) power turns itself into a solid, thick mass to block the flow of that power OUT of my wild nature. [What I’m trying to show you here is that when it gets hard to understand, I keep re-stating my own words it in different ways.] So.. my wild power obstructs ITSELF. For a good reason. Holy smokes.
When you get to this point, you ask yourself, “does that sound like something in my life?” And weirdly it does. Yesterday I balked at a plan I’d made some time ago. I found myself desperately feeling in my bones that I wanted to change my mind, so I decided to cancel my plan. But then I felt some self-induced social pressure that made me think I was stifling my self out of fear, and I decided I should ignore my gut desire to cancel. But I just couldn’t seem to stop that sluggish feeling and indeed felt like I was shutting down. The above description of “clotting” and that “thickening of power to block its own flow” feels like that “stopping up” process. It felt like I was scabbing over — but maybe that’s not a bad thing?
Step 4: Re-write your dream, BUT for each element, substitute its symbolic meaning.
You can insert some of the other things you wrote about that element too if you find yourself wanting to. (I usually find it feels good to do that on the main elements or when the messages seem exceptionally powerful.)
In the example, I’ve underlined the metaphor substitutions I took from above and inserted for each element. Sometimes a substitution seems not to make complete sense or even work in a grammatical sense. Just go with it.
Example: I am going through life being propelled or carried on my own optimistic, wild nature (in this dream it reminds me it’s here and that I don’t have to do it all myself with my regular socially-acceptable consciousness!). Its purpose is to live its own wild life and it tells me that my seemingly dangerous wildness is a fun, useful ride! It is all kind of adventurous, but then for some reason I slit my own wild nature’s throat — I mean I slice into my wild nature’s truth and love in a move that surely could kill it. I instantly feel horrible and watch with sadness and regret as it’s bleeding out, losing that easily flowing power — its life force. I don’t know why I did, and I wish I could take it back and resume riding the bear. BUT the thing I can’t see, the thing that the power/blood is telling me in this dream, is that my wild power ITSELF — the flow of it via a place of truth and love — is invisibly thickening into a solid clot that will staunch its own flow in an attempt to keep my wild nature from dying. It could heal the place of truth and love and save my wild bear nature. That’s what was happening yesterday when I was wanting to change my mind about cancelling that plan: it felt like something was getting thick and scabbing over, but now this dream seems to be saying maybe that’s a good thing… if I really want to resume riding my big, strong, dangerous, sunny, bear-like wild nature through life.
Wow. Probably that seems like gibberish to you, but it lands in my essential self with a deep and satisfying ca-thunk. The re-telling is often hard to put your finger on. But it feels powerful to you nonetheless and works on you in mysterious ways.
Step 5: Thank your essential self for this message. Do something in the outer world to honor the dream.
This doesn’t mean you have to change your life. I could indeed see this a sign to follow through with my gut desire to cancel my plan. But I don’t have to. I just as easily could make a sketch of the bear; google “yellow bears” and look at pictures or read about them* ; send a donation to an organization that helps preserve bears; etc. Just doing something in the outer world is a way of integrating your unconscious’ ideas and thanking it for communicating with you. Your essential self’s messages have reached you and you are affected by them — whether you change your immediate behavior or not, you will find yourself increasingly enriched and at peace.
*Here’s the image I found! I don’t know why it’s an octopus riding the bear — that of course wasn’t in my dream and my bear was considerably less cuddly and much more fierce — but I went with it. Interestingly, I am reading a book right now about octopuses and how their
intelligence redefines our ideas of consciousness! Woo-woo… Click on this link to visit the cool “Dog, Bear and Monkey blog” that posted that pic. I hope it’s legal for me to put that pic here as long as I refer you to the origin!